Seven UMass Amherst faculty members receive NSF CAREER awards in 2021-22 academic year : UMass Amherst

In the 2021-22 academic year, seven faculty members from the UMass Amherst campus were named recipients of National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Awards.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious awards to support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in the research and education and to lead advancements in the mission of their department or organization.

Manning College of Information and Computing Sciences

Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) Professors Jie Xiong and Hamed Zamani received CAREER grants from the National Science Foundation for their work on long-range wireless sensing and the development of search engines that operate on a conversational model, respectively. This brings the cumulative number of CAREER scholarships for SCIC to 34.


Jie Xiong

Xiong, which is priced at $621,984, focuses on improving a ubiquitous technology in everyday life: sensors, which are embedded in a diverse range of systems such as smartphones, wearables, gaming devices, medical equipment and automobiles. Wireless sensing, an emerging alternative to conventional sensors, uses wireless signals to detect humans and the surrounding environment using non-contact and sensorless methods, which can be particularly beneficial for pandemic response. and disasters. The technology also promises to benefit a wide range of disciplines, including elderly care, human-computer interaction and environmental monitoring.

Xiong’s project aims to develop fundamental theories to help people understand the underlying mechanism of long-range wireless sensing and apply these theories to overcome the limitations of the field, bringing large-scale wireless sensing closer. of widespread adoption.

“My goal is to revolutionize wireless sensing and enable many new sensing applications,” says Xiong. “These applications could range from sensing soil moisture for water conservation, to detecting survivors of a disaster, even if they are in a coma, to detecting long-term breathing. carried through walls.


NEWS Hamed Zamani
Hamed Zamani

Zamani, a specialist in information retrieval, search engines and machine learning, has received $570,863 to develop a next-generation conversational search engine. Whereas today’s search engines operate on a query-response paradigm, where, for example, you search for “best pizza in Amherst, Massachusetts” and then sift through over six million results, a conversational search engine might ask a series probing questions to arrive at an organized selection of results.

In particular, Zamani will work on developing new theories and models that can help advance the field of conversational information retrieval.

College of Natural Sciences

The College of Natural Sciences (CNS) received three CAREER grants this cycle, bringing the total number to 60.


NEWS Owen Gwilliam
Owen Gwilliam

Owen Gwilliam, from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, was awarded $546,061 for research into various theories of higher algebra that occupy a point of intersection between mathematics and physics. In particular, higher algebra has expanded quantum field theory, which plays an active role in everything from particle theory to condensed matter physics.

Recently, the exchange between physics and mathematics has given rise to a new tool, called “factorization algebras”.

“Mathematics and physics have had a long dialogue for centuries,” says Gwilliam, “beginning with Newton’s invention of infinitesimal calculus and its applications to gravity. The rise of quantum field theory in the 20th century has added an avid new topic of conversation. My research involves exploring how recent mathematical innovations in higher algebra clarify aspects of quantum field theory, with particular emphasis on Kapustin-Witten theories (of physics) and their connection to the Langlands geometric program (in mathematics).

However, a difficulty in pursuing interdisciplinarity is communication across disciplinary boundaries. A key part of Gwilliam’s project is to create opportunities for scholars at all levels to be fluent in both disciplines and, moreover, to build direct personal bridges. At undergraduate and postdoctoral levels, the project will organize annual summer schools for mathematicians and theoretical physicists, focusing on topics of common interest. In addition, each academic year, it will produce high-quality online masterclasses by experts on these subjects, with course notes and exercises. Finally, the project will support summer research for undergraduate students, addressing issues between math and physics, from the University of Massachusetts and nearby Five Colleges.


NEWS Marc Keiluweit
Marc Keiluweit

Soil scientist Marco Keiluweit, from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, was awarded $468,283 to better understand the complex science of how soils store carbon. Soils store more than twice as much carbon as the atmosphere and the biosphere combined, and more than 90% of this soil carbon is stored in organic compounds intimately associated with reactive minerals. Such mineral-organic associations (MOA) can protect carbon compounds against microbial or enzymatic attacks for centuries, even millennia. However, plant roots and associated microbes in the rhizosphere have a well-known ability to transform minerals through dissolution and exchange reactions. Yet the effect that roots and microbes have on MOAs remains poorly understood.

The overall goal of Keiluweit is to develop a mechanistic understanding of the dynamics and vulnerability of MOAs in the rhizosphere and to train diverse, creative, and technically skilled environmental scientists. The Keiluweit team will launch a collaboration with Holyoke Community College to increase representation of low-income and minority students in UMass’ Environmental Science degree program and create a new course that incorporates Design approaches Thinking to provide graduate and postdoctoral students with the creative problem-solving and collaborative skills urgently needed to solve the complex environmental challenges facing society today.


NEWS Lillian Fritz-Laylin
Lillian Fritz-Laylin

Lillian Fritz-Laylin, an evolutionary cell biologist, has been awarded $1,050,000 to study a fungus, known as B. dendrobatidis, which is decimating hundreds of amphibian species worldwide. It appears that the fungus interacts with the mucous membrane that covers many amphibians, but how, exactly, is unknown.

“The ultimate goal of this project,” says Fritz-Laylin, “is to determine how B. dendrobatidis responds to exposure to molecules found in amphibian mucus. Establishing the molecular mechanism by which mucus induces changes in B. dendrobatidis can be used to develop remedial strategies to reverse amphibian decline caused by B. dendrobatidis infection.

Part of Fritz-Laylin’s work will be to create a hands-on lab course that will be developed for approximately 24 students per year for the duration of the project. These students will gain hands-on experience in designing, performing, and interpreting the results of their own experiments, preparing them to participate in the STEM workforce. The development, evaluation, and dissemination of a modular laboratory course framework will enable other faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as extramural faculty, to develop new courses and/or quickly revise existing courses to improve undergraduate students’ scientific reasoning. Finally, adapting these materials into a workshop for middle school girls will broaden participation in STEM fields.

College of Engineering

Assistant Professors in Chemical Engineering Peng Bai and Ashish Kulkarni each received prestigious five-year fellowships through the National Science Foundation’s Career Development Program (CAREER). Bai and Kulkarni’s CAREER awards are $551,035 and $637,359, respectively.


NEWS Ashish Kulkarni
Ashish Kulkarni

by Kulkarni research combines nanotechnology, engineering and immunobiology to create nanoscale technologies that stimulate the immune system in specific ways to treat disease and improve human health. He will use the CAREER grant to focus his research on the relationship between nanomaterials and inflammasome activation.

“One of the biggest questions in the field of immunoengineering today is how do these nanomaterials interact with immune cells and what type of interactions do they create, whether positive or not?” Kulkarni said. “This project aims to understand and map these interactions in order to develop guidelines for future generations of more effective and beneficial nanomaterials.”

“The proposed study will improve our fundamental understanding of nanomaterial-immune cell interactions and allow us to develop novel approaches that can effectively target inflammasomes to treat chronic diseases, contributing significantly to improved human health and quality of life,” says Kulkarni.


NEWS Peng Bai
Peng Bai

Bay’s research focuses on the development of molecular simulation and first-principles methods to study separation, energy conversion, and storage in complex material systems.

“Millions of tons of alcohols and carboxylic acids, used to create polymers, food additives, solvents and pharmaceuticals, are produced industrially by catalytic carbonylation every year,” Bai explains. “Because this process uses expensive rare metal catalysts and requires harsh chemicals to promote the desired reactions, it results in stringent and expensive reactor designs, complex catalyst recycling schemes, and harmful waste streams. for the environment.”

With the CAREER grant, Bai will develop computational models to discover efficient porous solid catalysts as a technologically and environmentally attractive alternative.

College of Engineering faculty have received 38 NSF CAREER awards since the award’s inception in 1995. Along with the Bai and Kulkarni awards, the College of Engineering’s five current chemical engineering assistant professors have now received an NSF CAREER award.

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